Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Non-Fiction: House Calls by Dogsled by Keith Billington

At first blush, it is the very opposite of a summer read, which quite often seem to be books whose covers feature iced drinks or miles of sand or seashells stretched on the seashore. House Calls by Dogsled: Six Years in an Arctic Medical Outpost (Lost Moose/Harbour Publishing) clearly does not meet that criteria for summer read. Yet it was the cover that finally forced the book into my hand on a hot day. And I’m glad.

So that cover. The arctic outpost of the subtitle. A line of dogs pulling a sled through the snow. And not recreationally, oh no: it’s clear that these dogs are doing serious snow business, keeping travelers alive by moving them through their arctic world. I felt 10 degrees cooler just touching the book.

Author Keith Billington’s story is warming, however. In 1963 and while still in their 20s, Billington, a nurse, and his wife Muriel, a midwife, arrived in Fort McPherson, 1700 miles north of Edmonton to work with the Gwich’in people. In the time the Billingtons spent in the Arctic, the Gwich’in taught them as much about life and the way the world works as the couple would help them. House Calls by Dogsled is that story.

Billington is no lyricist, nor does he even make an attempt. The material here is so rich, however, that it stands on its own: a fascinating glimpse into a culture foreign to many of us, with the narrating Billington most often the proverbial fish out of water. It’s a memorable book. And just the thing to lower the temperature on a hot day.

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